It has been more than six months since George Floyd's murder. This past summer, not only U.S. citizens, but the world rose up to speak out against racism, murder and violence. A photographer I discovered during this moment, Vanessa Charlot (@vanessa.charlot) was presented by one of our writers in another article amid the incredible Black Lives Matter movements happening worldwide. Vanessa is a Haitian-American documentary photographer residing between St. Louis, MO and Miami, FL. Her work, which is phenomenal from a technical point of view is equally matched on a human level, resulting in these captures filled with emotion.
I had purposely wanted to wait to contact Vanessa to see how things progressed in the United States. This interview took place prior to the U.S. presidential election in November, 2020.
FFU: What led you to photography and the kind of photography you make?
VC: I stumbled into the field of documentary photography very young. My mother wanted me to attend a better school than the one in my neighborhood at the time. She purchased a disposable camera for me to capture my community in hopes of me getting accepted into a school for the arts. Living in a vibrant immigrant neighborhood in Miami, I was able to capture everyday life in black communities providing an intimate look into the lives of people whose stories commonly don’t make it into America’s publicdiscourse. Seeing the power and impact of centering black bodies in photographs propelled me to focus my work on documenting the beautiful complexities of the black experience in America and abroad.
FFU: What inspired you to make socio-economical and sexual/gender expression based imagery?
VC: My mere existence embodies the expression of intersectionality in race, sex/gender expression and socio-economic positionality. As a queer black woman and child of immigrants, I wanted to explore how those various identities can be presented in photographs. More importantly, I wanted to provide more visual representations for people who do not fall into the neat lines that society has inconveniently placed on how people show up in the world.
FFU: Do you have any stories to share about any of the people you have photographed?
VC: Photographing the Black Lives Matter movement in St. Louis has been deeply profound for me. In St. Louis, a city that is full of racial and economic inequality where the Ferguson Uprising happened after the killing of Mike Brown, building relationships is critical to showing the depth of Black St. Louis. While photographing one of the many protests, a woman, Gina sat on the roof of her car with an upside down American flag wearing her mask. She had been present at almost all of the protests this summer. Although she was a woman of few words, the look in her eyes made it uncomfortably clear that Black America was facing two existential threats: police brutality and coronavirus. Her silence amid a crowd chanting Black Lives Matter showed the pain the black women often suffer in silence.
FFU: I definitely know this photo and I think I'll never forget it because the woman and the image itself are both so expressive. Could you talk to us about George Floyd's murder in terms of your personal feeling/reaction, the reaction overall of American citizens and also more globally in the entire world?
VC: There was nothing new about the death of George Floyd. America has participated in the lynching of black bodies since it’s inception till now. Black men and women being senselessly killed is an intrinsic American value and so is pervasive injustice. The only difference now was we were in a pandemic and everyone was at home. So, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds America and the rest of the world witnessed and sat with what black America has been facing for centuries. What was alarming to me, was how surprised white America seemed to be surprised by the idea of police brutality. It made me wonder, where have they been this entire time. Did they not know about slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement? I could not seem to understand how ignorant they were to the rampant hate and injustice that was happening in this country. Finally, I came to accept that it is either willful ignorance or we are truly living in two separate countries; where both conclusions make sense especially after the verdict of Breonna Taylor was given.
FFU: I'm in France so I don't always know if I have an accurate picture of things in the states. I have this impression that (at least on social media) a lot of people treated this like a trend and have not really done so much since that point to continue this discussion. What is your point of view?
VC: America has mastered commodifying everything, including a movement to affirm black life. People have treated this as a trend. The support for BLM has waned considerably among white Americans. Americans are most interested in engaging in dialogue instead of making clear actionable decisions to increase equality in this country. Essentially, it is better to appear like someone who cares about their fellow man than to actually do it. I think, given the fact that Trump has not been completely rejected by most Americans in this election, shows that half of this country still upholds white supremacy and the infringement on women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and showing human decency and compassion towards immigrants as something that is inherent to American ideologies.
FFU: You have already been making photographs related to socio-economical issues for some time, but has any of the more recent events impacted you and your photography even more or in new ways?
VC: Before socio-economic issues in America came on the global stage for everyone to see, my work had more of a humanist feel. Documenting everyday life in black communities around the world was the bulk of my work. More and more, I am becoming more interested in returning to making photographs that humanize the black experience instead of just focusing on our painful struggles. There is nothing unique about a group of people being oppressed by another. But due to this highly racialized and polarized time in history, that has become all that we focus on. Black communities focus on that as well, as if our lives are not rich and meaningful within themselves, without including a white gaze. This idea can be applied to any marginalized group. It is important to explore the beauty we possess free from any other standard but our own.
FFU: How are you feeling about the looming election in the US?
VC: I am impatiently awaiting what the collective decision will be for the next US President. Although some people are surprised that Biden/Harris does not have a substantial lead over Trump, I am not surprised. I often work in Middle America, where racism is embedded within the fabric of the society. I am nervous about another Trump presidency, because it will affirm all of my deepest fears about what America claims to be they are not, but truly are.
I am reminded by the words of the late great Nina Simone, that it is the artist’s duty to reflect the times. I hope that work speaks to the breath of the experiences during this time in history. History is often told from the position of the victor and not the victim. I hope that my work serves as a visual representation of the nuanced experience of being black in America.